The nine-game losing streak ended with a four-out save from Arodys Vizcanio, which was weird: Had Fredi Gonzalez considered the possibility of a six-out save from the same reliever on Opening Day, the losing streak might never have begun. Weirder still was Gonzalez’s reaction to the Atlanta Braves’ first victory of 2016.
He told reporters: “I’m not real happy about my usage of the bullpen, to be brutally honest with you … I don’t like putting players in position where they may hurt themselves. And I think Vizcaino — not that he got hurt or anything — Vizcaino throwing 35 pitches in Game (10) of a season, it doesn’t sit well with me. But we won the game, and he may not pitch again until, like, Wednesday.”
Credit Fredi G. for wanting to protect his relievers. (We might recall that the same Fredi G. was accused of running his relievers, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel especially, into the ground in 2011, the season that concluded with the Braves’ epic September collapse.) Credit the manager for erring on the side of health. But I’m not sure he scored any points with upper management, which was clearly distressed by the 0-9 start.
Speaking with Mark Bowman of MLB.com, general manager John Coppolella said: “We feel we have a better team than we did in 2015 … We need to start playing better and winning more games.”
Asked if Gonzalez’s job might be in jeopardy if the losing continued, Coppolella said: “We care about Fredi, and we all hope we can turn things around and start winning games. That will take the pressure off everybody.”
That wasn’t the dreaded Vote Of Confidence. That was very close to a Vote Of No Confidence. If the streak hadn’t been broken by Vizcaino’s four-out save and the Braves were 0-12 today, they might well be holding a press conference this afternoon.
But they’re 3-9, having swept the Marlins. That’s better than 0-12. It’s still not good. If the Braves play .250 ball over a full season, they’ll finish 41-121. That would be a modern-era record for losses. But enough about that. Back to Gonzalez and the multi-inning save.
As Fredi G. sort of promised, Vizcaino wasn’t available Sunday after taking Saturday off. We stipulate that 35 pitches is indeed a lot for a closer — the most the 25-year-old Vizcaino, who had Tommy John surgery in 2012, had thrown in a big-league game. (The Braves traded him to the Cubs while he was recovering, if you recall.) There’s no way he should have worked the next night. But to miss Sunday’s game, too?
(Not-so-fun fact on Vizcaino: Between Opening Day and Friday night, he worked in three games. In none of those were the Braves tied or leading. He finished the eighth Tuesday in Washington after Bryce Harper hit the decisive double off Eric O’Flaherty; he worked a 16-pitch eighth Thursday in a game the Braves trailed 6-2.)
As it happened, the Braves wasted a 5-0 lead Sunday. Jason Grilli, who’d blown the save on Opening Day when Vizcaino wasn’t recalled for the ninth after throwing 16 pitches in the eighth, blew this one, too. The Braves retook the lead in the 10th. Summoned to close was Matt Wisler, a 23-year-old starting pitcher. He got through it without yielding a baserunner. The Braves had their sweep. But think about it.
The response to Vizcaino throwing 35 pitches was to let a trained reliever sit for two days — and the Braves are off today, making it at least a three-day break — while turning to a starter, who’s accustomed to working every fifth day, on Day 4. Yes, it was only for one inning. Yes, it worked. Yes, it was Outside The Box. But I’m not sure that was a box that needed opening. If it was wrong to commission a four-out save in Game 10, was it better to use a young starter in relief in Game 12?
Last week in this space, much was made of the managerial decisions made/unmade over the Braves’ first seven losses. The first on that list was not using Vizcaino for a six-out save in Game 1. Some among you responded by saying, “No manager would do that on Opening Day.” That was the point, kind of. Wouldn’t you want your manager to be ahead of the curve, as opposed to behind it? (Two Sundays ago, Jim Johnson stayed in after yielding four consecutive baserunners and the tying and go-ahead runs.)
I imagine upper management was pleased that Vizcaino’s 35 pitches resulted in a victory Friday night. (Nobody associated with the Braves wanted any part of 0-10.) I wonder, however, what was made of Gonzalez’s subsequent disavowal of his own tactics. And here’s the strangest part:
When a team is in deep rebuilding mode, it’s usually the manager (or coach, in other sports) who has to be convinced that winning isn’t as important as player development. Here it seems the other way around.